Bananageddon: Millions face hunger as fungus hits crops
SCIENTISTS have warned that the world's banana crop, worth billions and a crucial part of the diet of more than 400 million people, is facing "disaster" from virulent diseases immune to pesticides or other forms of control.
Alarm at the most potent threat - a fungus known as Panama disease tropical race 4 (TR4) - has risen dramatically after it was announced in recent weeks that it has jumped from South-east Asia, where it has already devastated export crops, to Mozambique and Jordan.
A United Nations agency told The Independent that the spread of TR4 represents an "expanded threat to global banana production".
Experts said there is a risk that the fungus, for which there is currently no effective treatment, has also already made the leap to the world's most important banana growing areas in Latin America, where the disease threatens to destroy vast plantations of the Cavendish variety.
The variety accounts for 95 per cent of the bananas shipped to export markets including the United Kingdom, in a trade worth £5.4bn.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) will warn in the coming days that the presence of TR4 in the Middle East and Africa means "virtually all export banana plantations" are vulnerable unless its spread can be stopped and new resistant strains developed.
In a briefing document obtained by The Independent, the FAO warns: "In view of the challenges associated with control of the disease and the risk posed to the global banana supply, it is evident that a concerted effort is required from industry, research institutions, government and international organisations to prevent spread of the disease."
Scientists are particularly concerned about the impact of TR4 across the developing world, where an estimated 410 million people rely on the fruit for up to a third of their daily calories.
According to one estimate, TR4 could destroy up to 85 per cent of the world's banana crop by volume.
Since it emerged in the 1950s as the replacement for another banana variety ravaged by an earlier form of Panama disease, Cavendish has helped make bananas the most valuable fruit crop in the world, dominated by large multinational growing companies such as Fyffes, Chiquita and Dole.